Linguistic Misunderstandings in Cuba

Dmitri Prieto

Santa Cruz del Norte

HAVANA TIMES — I had met with some friends at the park in front of Havana’s main bus terminal. It was hot, and I headed down to the station to buy a bottle of pop. I asked the clerk for one the way I normally do where I live (the city of Santa Cruz del Norte, located 50 kilometers from Havana’s downtown area): “Could I have a “shell” of Tu-Cola, please?”

The clerk gave me a confused look and asked: “A what?!” That’s when I realized that, a few dozen kilometers away from home, the word “shell” doesn’t mean what it does in Santa Cruz del Norte.

I explained to her I was asking for a 1.5-liter bottle of pop and that was the end of that. The young woman simply remarked: “What you meant was a “cucumber”…”

The bottle often referred to as a “shell” in my city is known in Havana as a “cucumber” (a word that is also understood in Santa Cruz del Norte).

Few of us realize that linguistic differences exist between communities separated by very small distances. According to experts, these cannot be considered dialects. However, we could well regard them as such for regions separated by greater distances.

I spent part of my childhood in San German, my father’s native town (near the city of Holguin). I learned my first words of Spanish there, and many were different from those commonly used in Havana to refer to the same things. There, an “amapola” is the flower known in Havana as a marpacifico, and the word “gas” is used to refer to kerosene.

When, as I child and started talking to other kids in Havana, I realized that some of the words I knew didn’t mean the same things there.

Today, when I watch television, it pains me to see that our programs only portray the way in which people in Havana speak. I believe the way people talk in Pinar del Rio, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba or Camaguey is just as beautiful.

These linguistic differences should find equal representation in Cuba’s media to protect the dignity of their speakers and in order to begin moving towards greater justice and away from a Havana-centric society that often ridicules them.

I believe the constitution ought to protect the different ways in which the people of Cuba speak, as part of the nation’s cultural heritage (just as the different liturgical languages of the country’s spiritual traditions ought to be protected).

As far as the subjectivity that linguistic particularities embody is concerned, I see much wisdom in the phrase “A Sprach iz a Dialekt mit an Armey un Flot” (“a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”), as an expert in Yiddish once concluded.

One thought on “Linguistic Misunderstandings in Cuba

  • In the States soda like Coca-Cola is called tonic in the Boston area, pop or soda pop elsewhere .
    Milk shakes -made up of milk syrup and ice cream and then beaten smooth- are variously called frappes, malteds, milk shakes, shakes or even cabinets .
    Long sandwiches are called heroes in New York , hoagies and submarine sandwiches elsewhere
    I would guess there are an enormous number of items called one thing in one place and something quite different just a few miles away and not just limited to food .
    I understand that Gua-gua is Spanish slang for a bus in some countries and elsewhere the same phonetics means a baby.
    The animals don’t know what they’re missing. not having language .

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